January 18, 2012

Seeing Amsterdam: An Interview with Renee James.


Renee James in Amsterdam with new travel friends from the US, Ireland, England, and Morocco.

So tell us a little about about your trip. Was this your first visit to this location? What was your "First Impression"?

It was my second trip to the "Land Of" Amsterdam! It is a fascinating place and the people are really the nicest I've ever encountered. I've traveled a few places abroad prior to this but even when I compare it to Paris (another nice place to visit)-- there is really no comparison. Why do I want to write about Amsterdam vs. Rome, for example? Rome was EXTREMELY prejudiced towards Blacks. There are several races and nationalities that live in Amsterdam and somehow, they all live among each other with very little racism, hate crimes and violence. As a black woman, I found it totally refreshing. In addition, they are among the healthiest people too. A huge population ride bicycles and walk instead of filling the air with emissions from cars.
For people who wish to visit the city, two tidbits of caution-- there appears to be a problem with pick-pocketers (although I never came remotely close to encountering that, but signs are posted throughout the city), and moderately priced hotels are not hotels at all. If you decide to stay at the Marriot (for example) it will be hugely overpriced and the beds are very hard. I opted out of the traditional hotel names we in the U.S. are familiar with and stayed at the other local hotels instead. Those hotels are like bed and breakfast residents, and the stairs are OMINOUS! If you haven't climbed stairs like these, they are breath-taking and the actual steps are very tiny but hold on to the railing and you'll be just fine!

Tell us a bit about how and why you decided to take this trip to Amsterdam. Did you travel in a group or did you decide to travel solo? How did you go about planning your trip?

On this particular 8 day trip, I decided to go alone. I simply wanted a break from my day to day grind, and needed this vacation to be completely stress-free and I got exactly what I wanted. It's funny that I could not think of one place in the U.S. where I could experience that for my important "stress free" vacation. I spontaneously "planned" each day (waking when I wanted and visited where I wanted). There were actually 2 nights that I was out from 1pm, until the following day arriving back at the hotel around 1pm! Every single place I ventured, the people (including the locals) were exceptionally kind. From Anne Frank's House, Van Gogh Museum, The Diamond Museum (yes, there is a diamond museum there) and even Madame Tussaud-- I met new people and made new friends every single place I went.
As mentioned before, I had visited once, but it was just short of 48 hours so I knew I wanted to go back one day. After this current visit, I'm certain that I will make this an annual birthday vacation from here on. I needed a vacation that would be "stress-free" and met people from Lebanon, Israel, Cairo, Ireland, South Africa, America, United Kingdom, Morocco, Finland, Pakistan (yes, Pakistan), China, Japan, Argentina and Sudan. Every single person was incredibly kind, generous and warm. There was no nationality that looked at me as a Black woman from the U.S., I was only HUMAN to them! And oddly, I did very little research prior to this trip and found everything I needed on the internet (without a travel agent).

Over all, how would you rate your experience? How would you describe the treatment you received as a Black American or as an American in general? Would you recommend Amsterdam to other Black travelers?

My overall rating for a trip to Amsterdam would be 10 out of 10! It was one of the greatest examples of a non-racist experience. While it is slightly more expensive than the U.S., you can absolutely budget a week and spend less than $395 U.S. dollars aside from your hotel, (I did have frequent flyer miles to use plus hotel points). But you can visit several museums, including taking a daily canal boat trip too. I really didn't do the "shopping thing", because that's not me. But they do have the finest designer shops too. Gucci was just around the corner from where I stayed. I was very near their fashion district. I would completely recommend this location to any traveler (group or single).
Another interesting fact; at 2am, I ran out of Euro, but I was still having fun. I was directed to an ATM and there were about 3 others that were there to obtain cash. That would never happen in the U.S.! Two of the three were single women. I also walked and took the Tram, Trains and buses everywhere. I really got lucky, because the one time I needed a cab, I asked a waiter at a restaurant about a cab and was charged very little (25 Euro to be exact-- it could have easily have been 45+ Euro had I called a cab on the phone).
One final note; the freedom to smoke marijuana does not dictate drug heads throughout the city. As a matter of fact, they approach it totally different than the U.S. so you won't really find people on any drug soliciting anyone or harassing you for cash. And the "Red Light" district is tamed at best-- it is not on every corner. The people of Amsterdam are just like every hard working person I know... the only difference is that you don't have to fear for your life when just want to have a fun and relaxing time.
What was your favorite "Must See" location or activity that you would definitely recommend to other Black travelers?
This is a hard one to answer definitively, but if I must chose, I'd say the boat rides on the canal. It is a very small location so you really can walk everywhere, but the boat rides on the canal at night was just spectacular! There is also the Square-- they have street performers who are very talented too.

What would you say was the biggest cultural difference you experienced during your trip? Did you have any instances of "culture shock"?

The biggest cultural difference was no racism or discrimination. I mean, literally, I experienced no problems in terms of race or gender. It was the safest I’ve ever felt!

How would you describe the treatment and service you received in your hotel, area restaurants, and stores? Were there any areas where you felt un-safe or threatened? Were there any places where you were treated especially well?

Well, the hotel (an American based name that we all know) was slightly more snotty. The local hotels (or bed and breakfast) was much more friendly. I never had a problem at a store (tourist shops or high end locations either). And it would be difficult for me to name the places were I was treated especially well, because everywhere I went, I was treated so nicely. I assume there would be an exception in the U.S., but I found every public place I went in Amsterdam to be the same which was extremely inviting and warm.

What suggestions or advice about Amsterdam would you give to other Black travelers who will read this? What do you wish you had known about this country before your visit?
As a suggestion to Black Americans who visit this city, don't be loud or abrasive-- they are not that sort of people. The atmosphere is not of that kind. The people (of all races) are very relaxed and attend to their daily activities there. If you approach anyone and need help or directions, a normal tone is most effective. I gained free train and tram fares and people would often help carry my bags for me while walking to each platform. I found that when you need help, a soft tone is best. I did witness only once that an American couple were a little "over the top", and the local people simply walked away from them instead of offering any sort of help or confrontation. And if I had to single out one thing that I wish I'd known prior to my trip there; it would be "shower slippers". The bathroom only had a shower-- I would have preferred to have shower slippers (thongs/flippers) during my daily bathes.
That said, I really had the best time while there so I hope your readers will enjoy my commentary. I'm glad I found your site! We should all travel more to appreciate other places and cultures.